Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson
Running Time: 114 min.
*** (out of ****)
Spoiler Warning! The following review reveals details about the film's ending
I’m not usually one to say “I told you so” but when the box office receipts started to trickle in for The Incredible Hulk and it was just barely able to top Ang Lee’s returns for 2003’s unfairly maligned Hulk I just couldn’t help myself. While I was one of the few who enjoyed Lee’s film, I’ll acknowledge that it definitely had some issues and wasn’t what fans of the comic or television series had hoped for. But it wasn’t so much of a disaster that I thought there was an immediate need to hit the re-set button. Plus, releasing another Hulk film when the bad taste of Lee’s had yet to wear off for many didn’t seem like the best idea. When I heard the talent involved in the re-boot my interest piqued, but only out of a desire to see it fail.
Lee’s film, though not great, was just about the best I thought we’d get out of that character so the idea revisiting it again reeked of pointlessness. Despite seeing no purpose for its existence I was still prepared to go in with an open mind and at least give it a chance. Good thing, because The Incredible Hulk is a lean, exciting picture that not only corrects some of the mistakes made in Lee’s film but points out other ones I wasn’t even aware existed in it. Comparing the two films side by side is slightly unfair though because I think each work well for what they are: Radically different takes on an iconic comic character. But I did get the impression that this is the version the late, great Bill Bixby would have preferred, which really counts for something in my book. I appreciated that director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) embraced the classic 1970’s television series rather than run from it.
It’s unfortunate this film is more known for its behind the scenes creative conflicts than what’s up on screen because I think it’s a slightly superior to Iron Man, the other summer super hero movie this year with which it’ll most likely be compared. And I had to wonder what exactly alleged “control freak” Edward Norton hated so much about the picture that he fought with the studio for months and flat-out refused to do any publicity when it was released. Or at least I WAS wondering…until the end of the film, when a really ill conceived creative decision is made that infuriated me. If it’s in any way indicative of how the studio treated the film, maybe Norton had a point. Someone’s head wasn’t screwed on straight. There’s so much I admired about this that I want to give this a higher rating, but just can’t. The ending is the last and often most important thing you remember and this one is just about as insulting as they come.
Leterrier’s approach is clear from the get-go. Take everything Ang Lee did in his film and do the opposite. This is a break-neck paced, Bourne-like action vehicle stripped of all excess fat and padding, clocking in very briskly at just under 2 hours. In a wise move, he condenses a more faithful backstory to the opening credits since those in the know are familiar with it anyway and those who aren’t probably don’t care or would just be bored. After a government experiment involving gamma rays had gone very, very wrong Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) is on the run in South America, struggling to control his monstrous green alter-ego the Hulk and still searching for a cure. General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) is alerted of his location at a bottling plant and dispatches a team led by ruthless special-ops expert Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to capture him. Instead Banner escapes to America where he re-connects with former flame Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) while The General injects Blonsky with a serum that transforms into a much more formidable foe for the Hulk.
The film’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness, but the trade-off was worth it. Zak Penn’s script (co-written by an uncredited Norton) is so tight and focused its almost sickening. The result is an action picture that’s nearly flawlessly put together, but doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for emotion and character development, likely to avoid any parallels with Lee’s film. This was supposedly Norton’s big bone of contention and on one level I can see where he’s coming from, but on another I can’t. By excising scenes to cut down on character and emphasize action it plays as little more than just a chase film at times, but at others the results are downright thrilling. Leterrier frames the film around three main action scenes and stages each expertly, the best of which involves sound wave cannons descending on the Hulk at Culver University.
Unfortunately, they still haven’t found a way to physically render the Hulk on screen in a way that’s entirely believable, although it’s a definite step-up from Lee’s effort in terms of CGI. I’m not saying we should be painting a bodybuilder green instead, but that this was done pretty well and still didn’t look quite right speaks to just how difficult it is to translate this character. Mostly, I think it was fine considering the thankless circumstances and is at least visually closer to comic incarnation. Leterrier also thankfully does away with a particularly annoying aspect of the previous film, where the Hulk would inexplicably grow bigger when shot at.
While there’s a heavy emphasis on action, most of the film’s plot deals with the plight of Banner so Norton’s performance is key and that’s where the movie really clicks. Norton re-establishes Banner as a mild mannered intellectual bewildered by his inability to control the Hulk, something that was absent in Eric Bana’s portrayal. The idea of introducing the watch that tells him his pulse rate was brilliant and gives a real sense of urgency to every scene. You can tell the creative forces behind this movie sat down and really thought the details of this movie out and worked hard to present it in way that was faithful to the essence of the character. They even threw in Joe Harnell’s classic “The Lonely Man” theme music from the TV series and of course cameos from Lou Ferrigno and Stan Lee and one more you’d have to watch more closely to catch.
After a relatively sedate turn in Funny Games, Tim Roth is back to his old menacing self again infusing just the right amount of menace into the power-hungry Blonsky whose transformation into the giant reptilian Abomination leads to the film’s thrilling climax. Tim Blake Nelson has a fun, quirky role as “Mr. Blue,” better known as Dr. Samuel Sterns, a cellular biologist who may be able to cure Banner’s condition. William Hurt is as good if not better than Sam Elliot was as General Ross, even if his character is a bit of a bore. The relationship between he and his daughter and the conflict interest that arises because of Banner is well handled. Of everything, I was least looking forward to seeing Liv Tyler attempt to fill the shoes of the lovely and talented Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, but as much as it pains me to admit it, she does a pretty decent job. She’s especially effective working opposite the Hulk (or rather a blue screen) conveying a quiet, calming, reassuring presence. She also shares surprisingly good chemistry with Norton, which I never would have expected.
After watching this and The Strangers I’m convinced Tyler must have it written into her contract that every movie in which she appears has to have an awful ending. I’ll be careful not to spoil too much, which shouldn’t be difficult considering the final scene of the film is so completely removed from everything else that occurs, and therein lies the problem. I would have given it a pass if the movie ended on the terrible scene that unwisely invokes the closing moment of Ang Lee’s picture, but it turns out Leterrier wasn’t done. There's more. The next and final scene was so incongruous and stupid that when the movie ended I rushed to the computer hoping to discover that maybe what I'd seen had been some kind of crazy, alternate DVD ending. No such luck.
This pointless scene involves a very well-known actor from another superhero franchise making a ridiculous cameo appearance. Now before everyone jumps down my throat I know the scene was put in to set up The Avengers movie in 2011. But all that does is explain its relevance in the “Marvel Universe” not its justification for placement in a movie about The Incredible Hulk. It’s great that Marvel wants to push their franchises but would it kill them to do their advertising and cross-promotion elsewhere… instead of at the climax of THIS FILM!
I don’t consider myself someone with a fragile ego but if I were Edward Norton and found out that the final scene for a film I poured my heart and soul into would be a commercial plugging an upcoming studio project and feature another big-time A-list actor from a more popular superhero franchise, I’d be furious. I know everyone loves this actor and so do I but this is not the way you end a film. If you start a movie off on the wrong foot there’s time to recover but a botched ending is trickier. Would everyone be praising The Dark Knight as much as they have if it ended with Brandon Routh’s Clark Kent sharing a drink and some laughs with Commissioner Gordon in a bar? It’s a valid comparison. The scene may get comic fanboys drooling for The Avengers movie but it doesn’t work and sends this one off on the worst note possible.
If this ending occurred in a film I didn’t like I wouldn’t care. But there’s so much to enjoy and appreciate in The Incredible Hulk that I really wanted it to go out on a high note. As much hell as I’ll catch for saying this I still think it was better than Iron Man, although the fact that I have more familiarity with this character through the old television series could play a role in that. Despite the somewhat disappointing box office take of this there are plans to go ahead with a sequel, ironically after The Avengers is released. I guess we know where Marvel’s priorities lie, as if there were any doubts. Instead of scratching their heads yet again wondering why the Hulk didn’t catch on maybe they’d be better off asking themselves why they’ve been treating the character like a second-class citizen.